Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ellie Greenwich

All day I've been trying to find something useful to say about Ellie Greenwich, by far the most important person who died in late August of 2009. I've been hit surprisingly hard by her death, considering that as far as I know she hasn't done much of anything (in terms of public music-making, that is) since singing backup for Blondie and Cyndi Lauper in the late 70s and early 80s.

If I were going to pick a single favorite songwriter of all time, it would most likely be her. She's certainly the best of the Brill Building geniuses. Her songs are always a brilliant mix of joy and pathos, in varying degrees (and it's sometimes hard to see one or the other of them, but there is joy in songs like "The Train from Kansas City" and "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)", just as there is pathos in "Chapel of Love" and "Da Doo Ron Ron").

The pathos often arises from issues that weren't supposed to be discussed in pop hits of the early and mid 60s (but of course frequently were), like how shitty it is to be poor ("When I was a little girl I had a ragdoll/The only doll I've ever owned"), or how shitty it was to be a woman then ("He makes me do things I don't wanna do/He makes me say things I don't wanna say"). The narrator's voice in these songs isn't usually aware of these issues, but the song always is. Lesley Gore's character may not know what to do about her man who's been cheatin', but "Maybe I Know" does, and Ms. Greenwich and the listener share in the heartbreak of powerlessness.

I haven't even mentioned "Be My Baby" yet, and that's because there is nothing to say about it. If I have one favorite song, if there is one song that's objectively the greatest song in the entire world, it's "Be My Baby". It might feel like divine revelation, but Ellie Greenwich wrote it.

Some of her less well-known songs:
The Shangri-Las, "The Train from Kansas City"
The Exciters, "He's Got the Power"
The Crystals, "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)"
The Ronettes, "I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine"
The Shangri-Las, "Out in the Streets"
Blondie's early demo cover of "Out in the Streets"
And the great lady herself: Ellie Greenwich, "You Don't Know"

(If the formatting or sound on these mp3s is weird or subpar, I apologize; I found them quickly online so I could post them here. I have most on CD or record.)

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